A cluttered table.

Are you surrounded by clutter? Between the mess of papers on your desk and piles of kids’ toys at home, your top New Year’s resolution may be organizing your space. In this hour, we bring together organizing experts to offer tips on decluttering our homes and workspaces.

Tips on Decluttering Your Life (and Desk) 8 January,2016forum

Victoria Roberts-Russell, professional organizer, Victoria Roberts Organizing
Michael Tompkins, psychologist and co-director, San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy
Debra Baida, professional organizer, Liberated Spaces

  • Damiana

    I’ve found that decluttering paperwork can be daunting but rewarding. Recently I found an unexpected refund check from my insurance company that appeared to be masquerading as junk mail.

    But the most valuable bit of decluttering/reorganizing advice for me is from FLYlady.net: Clean your sink. I don’t have a dishwasher, so it can be daunting, but nevertheless, a clean sink is a piece of order, calm and sanity.

  • Leah Hertzel

    For those of us with multiple stacks because if we put them away we will
    forget them, how can we better manage in a way that results in less

  • Robert Thomas

    Different classes of objects present different problems.

    For people with problematic vision, carefully sorted piles of correspondence or business papers are fatiguing to read and there’s fear that an important paper may be misplaced. Better to leave them alone.

    Seemingly random objects may look discardable from a short distance but recall vivid narrative memories when handled. Better to leave them alone.

    “Organization” may be a trap; it may amount only to compactification of objects, that when revisited, “fluff up” to fill rooms. Better to leave these “organized” masses alone.

  • Gary Barker

    We’ve been tossing out 60 years worth of accumulated stuff the last 2 months, in part inspired by Debra. It’s amazing how liberating it is, but how strangely scary it is to get rid of stuff. What a tangled web we weave with our stuff.

  • SfoErin

    Could the guests please comment on the connection of procrastination to hoarding? I find myself stowing things away because I dread the process of dealing with them.

  • Ralph

    It’s important to remember the impact on the environment and society of throwing stuff out. There is always someone less fortunate than you who could use something that you no longer take an interest in. Use services like craigslist to give things away for free.

    • geraldfnord


    • Damiana

      I love FreeCycle! I trust the users more than I do Craigslist. I’ve gotten some responses from very annoying, demanding and difficult people on CL. I’ve also found NextDoor a great way to rehome items.

  • Madhu

    I live in a really small space but I have several craft hobbies which require tons of STUFF. I knit and crochet, so I have tons of yarn. I had a jewelry business which I just quit/put on hold at the end of 2015 so I have lots of jewelry making supplies. I want to make my home more homey and spacious. I really like minimalism and it’s important to me to be eco-friendly. But I also want to keep my hobby things because they bring me so much joy, and I don’t know how to reconcile these two things.

  • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

    Clutter may be a manifestation of a problem in another area: legal, financial, social, and/or environmental.

    Rather than assuming automatically that a cluttered space is solely the problem of the person who lives, works, or otherwise controls a space: friends, family, and community members who want to help should consider first a respectful and careful interview with the protagonist to discover more about reasons, solutions, and goals. Then one can offer specific help(s) as feasible, or help get them elsewhere and help follow through.

    it may take time, space, and resources allocated to several areas to do a good job that will do little damage in the process, especially as seen by the protagonist, and therefore will likely be accepted and last.

    A good job organizing job is done with sensitivity; careful listening, and genuine care for the protagonist and the community.

    • geraldfnord

      I take your point, having seen the psychological damage done to a relative when her crutch of clutter was removed insensitively, but unfortunately objects are much more easily removed than friends and the community changed, let alone family.

    • Damiana

      A man considered a “hoarder” in my area committed suicide when faced with monumental decluttering or he’d be evicted. His landlord was clueless as how to deal with the intertwined mental
      health issues. It was tragic.

  • Cat Gardere

    Could your guests perhaps speak to the challenge of sorting and letting go of possessions that belong to a deceased loved one? When my parents died several years ago, my brother and I inherited 2 full homes worth of belongings and so began what we call “The Stuff Problem”. We’ve managed to make a dent, but the task is so fraught with grief that we are left living with far too much. How do you reconcile de-cluttering with the grief of letting go and the need to honor loved ones that are no longer with us?

  • geraldfnord

    I hold ‘Does this spark joy?’ as a filter to be extremely blinkered and (in my case) inappropriate. I wish to retain all of the memories sparked by all of my items, be they joyful, painful, boring, or whatever, as only a child or a type of religious fanatic believes that life were intended to be Joy. I am all of me, and I wish to retain all of me.

    (I can easily believe that people believe they can sense emotions from objects qua objects, deluded though they are, because an object I know [and I never forget one] brings me shockingly back to when I knew it last.)

    When adequate three-dimensional scanning becomes affordable to me, and two-dimensional scanning for papers affordably faster, that will be different.

  • Teresa Vasquez-Williams

    As a parent, how can I help my 11-yr-old daughter avoid cluttering habits? My son has no problem getting rid of toys he no longer uses. My daughter, on the other hand appears to have emotional attachments to the wrapping paper of her favorite present, still keeps her baby toys, etc. I tend to remove such items when she is not home, so I have a solution for now, but I want her to “want to learn to live in a decluttered space” without having an argument. My room is not cluttered, our living space is clear so the example is there, but she does not seem to have a desire to have that in her room.
    Thanks for any advice you can give me…

  • bagelverse

    I used to think that I could’nt burn more CDs or DVDs than would fit in my final resting place, but now with flash drives or portable hard drives….ugh…well their small. But at least with some many movies and books up in the cloud it gives me less reason to have as many books, CDs and DVDS at home.

  • Ching Ching Tan

    My house doesn’t look too cluttered because I am good at hiding stuff away, but whenever I open drawers, closets, that’s where the clutters are. What’s the best strategy to start de-cluttering? How to do that in a consistent way? I think my problem is the lack of consistency that prevents me from being truly organized. Thanks!

    • Start small. Start with one shelf or drawer and declutter it. If you come up with “maybes” stash them in a box and review them at the end. Just spend 30-45 minutes at a time declutter. I find that people are put off by how long they think it will take, and limiting your time means you have permission to stop and do something else. Good luck!

    • Damiana

      I found that starting out for 15 min at a time worked for me. Listening to the radio while doing it makes the time fly.

  • geraldfnord

    I grew up expecting a nuclear war any day—things are better now, I believe the odds to be only about even that one will occur before I die in (likely) about thirty years. As such, the prospect of disposing of any item I were unable to make myself is counter-survival….

  • Stephan

    What do you do when you want to give things away instead of throwing them out, but don’t have an outlet for the things?

    • JaySFO

      Post them on Craigslist and find people to come and pick them up from you. I did that a few months ago with six sets of miniblinds. Posted the dimensions on Craigslist and they were gone within a few hours.

  • Chris

    Book and clothing are often the toughest challenges. I try to adhere to time-based rules, such as “if i haven’t worn this in three years, donate it.” We often keep books because having them around helps us feel educated and erudite. There’s a great alternative- the library.

    • Damiana

      I’ve helped clients with decluttering, even though I’m not an organizing professional.

      In one case I was asked because the client knew u wasn’t going to judge her clutter and that I understood her well enough to help her prioritize. She was a clotheshorse, so I didn’t use rules of time to apply to clothes sorting.

      With the other client I worked with her on insurance reimbursements and since she had all her paperwork dumped in a big box it wasn’t nearly as bad as she feared.

      Sometimes we need someone who understands us and cares about us to help, and it can actually be fun.

      I have a friend who was too enthusiastic about decluttering and she still regrets giving away from valued items.

  • Lily

    Regarding the question about buying all the plastic containers – be sure to also consider ziploc bags, especially with all the craft things. I had containers for scrapbooking paper scraps and what not and found it much more space saving to buy, in the scrapbook paper case, a bunch of 12″ x 6″ ziploc bags and using those to sort for each color. Buy a bunch of 1.5″ x 2″, 2″x3″, 4″x 6″ ziploc bags and roll up your ribbon and put it in there. (inexpensive on eBay). Cardboard ribbon rolls are a gigantic waste of space.

  • Johnny L

    Decluttering our life and apartment got a lot easier once we came across Omni. It is a phenomenal service that not only helps us with current possessions but has a vision for changing the way people view their possessions. More than just decluttering our personal space, there is a path to declutter our collective space (as a larger community). Love the folks over there.

    • Ralph

      SPAM ALERT #3

      • Johnny L

        I am not sure what qualifies my post as spam? This service is one of the primary things that my wife and I utilize to deal with clutter in our lives.

  • Sandra J. Stark

    For people who have a serious problem with clutter and may have hoarding tendencies (which just means you have a lot of trouble letting go of things) paying for storage of any kind is a ticket to disaster. You will soon find that the spaces that were left empty by the stuff you put in storage is filled with more stuff. Unless you can stop the cycle, you will not recover. I found help through the Institute for Compulsive Hoarding and Cluttering at the Mental Health Association of SF, who has been helping people with this since 1997. They are non-profit and there are no charges for any of their services, which include support groups and training groups. .

  • liberatedspaces

    We regret being unable to squeeze in mention of our favorite two resources to enable listeners to find professional organizers, so here they are:

    National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), http://www.napo.net
    Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD), http://www.challengingdisorganization.org

  • Anjo Cruz

    This isn’t spam. I am simply a 28 year old native Bay Area resident who has moved at least 15-20 times around the Bay Area within the past year. Ryan and Adam from Omni have created a beautiful, efficient, and innovative way to help people. You don’t have to have a bunch of things to use omni. I suggest everyone sign up with omni for multiple reasons. They really do stick to their business model of picking up and dropping things off on time. Their customer service from everyone on the team has been beyond expectations. Every single item you give to them they handle with great care and they even make it look better somehow! The way they display and itemize every item is done so beautifully. I love storing whatever random item I have with them because when I go into the app, it’s like I’m shopping, but all for free! Call me weird for going into the app everyday and pretending like I’m shopping so I can get my fix. Honestly they have saved me from so much stress from moving everyday, every week, or however much time i was jumping from place to place while I was looking for something more stable. Seeing them at the doorstep brings me so much joy because they have such great work ethic and energy that they’re the type of people you just always want to be around. My clients are quite impressed with their business model and work ethic as well. I can go on forever about them but I’ll probably seem crazy. Use this company to store 5 items or everything you own because when it comes back to you, it feels brand new! Use my code too and save some money! :] ACRU-141

  • Thank you KQED and hosts for your wonderful insights!

    This is Kyle, one half of the decluttering and design company, New Minimalism. I would like to address the comments below about “off-site” storage solutions. In very rare cases is it actually necessary have off-site storage. These storage systems are typically a short-sighted solution to a bigger issue — the issue of living a life within the means/confines/space of your current situation, and being satisfied with that current situation. Even the most “easy to use” off-site storage system will add to the mental clutter of having to keep track of which items are where, and in the end detracts from leading a fulfilling, grounded and satisfied life.

    I also would like to emphasize the importance of donating all usable items to local charities. “Scrap” is great in SF for extra craft supplies; Goodwill for most household goods; Kindergartens are always in need of extra paper. People hold on to items so as not to “waste” them, but by having too much stuff, they are not utilizing those very same items and are thereby wasting them.

    We are so pleased that the topic of living with less clutter is resonating with the general public! If I were to break it down to one sentence, decluttering is about articulating your top values and passions, and creating a space to support that wonderful, unique life.

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